Former board members call for investigation at PRNSA

08/24/2017

A member of the advisory council to the Point Reyes National Seashore Association and a former member of the nonprofit’s governance committee have called for an investigation by the National Park Service into claims of employee abuse, linking recent allegations of safety violations in the workplace and employer retaliation to “a mass exodus” of employees in 2015.

The park service has declined to comment on the request, but this is not the first time it’s been asked to undertake an investigation of its partner. 

Following the resignation of the majority of PRNSA’s senior staff in 2015, a handful of board members met with seashore superintendent Cicely Muldoon to alert her of the situation and ask for an investigation.

The resignations came after the arrival of executive director Samaria Jaffe and “amid charges of a newly toxic work environment of threats and harassment,” wrote Carlos Porrata, an Inverness resident and member of PRNSA’s advisory council, and Karen Gray, a Point Reyes Station resident and former member of the PRNSA board’s governance committee, in a letter to the editor in this newspaper earlier this month.

Mr. Porrata and Ms. Gray called on the park service to initiate a “proper” investigation into recent allegations made by the organization’s bookstore manager, Devin Currens. On paid leave since late June, Mr. Currens filed a workplace safety complaint and a whistleblower complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The crux of his safety complaint concerned an incident involving dead rodents inside the Drakes Beach Bookstore—which had been closed for some time due to a road damage from winter storms. 

Mr. Currens said he also filed complaints with the Labor Department’s wage and hour division. According to spokesman Jose Carnevali for OSHA, the case might still be open; calls to the Labor Department were not returned by press time.

Mike Deverall, board chair for PRNSA, said the board is evaluating the situation. “The park didn’t respond to the request for an investigation back in 2015, and we didn’t think that was necessary. As far as this new situation, we are evaluating it,” he said.

Earlier this month, PRNSA issued a cease and desist letter to Mr. Currens over what it called defamatory statements he made on Facebook regarding the organization and, specifically, Ms. Jaffe. Though he took many of the posts down, Mr. Currens said he remains confused by the language of the letter and concerned about the scope of what he can and cannot say.

“This organization does not seem to care at all about employees’ rights to free speech, and it really doesn’t care about its employees’ rights to a safe workplace,” he said.

In a letter to the Light last week, Ms. Jaffe and Mr. Deverall wrote that “PRNSA is managing a sensitive personnel issue and is working closely with the National Park Service.” They said the issue required confidentiality and that PRNSA had hired a human resources consultant and a third-party evaluator to help staff with the issues Mr. Currens raised.

In a conversation with the Light, one former employee, Dave Seyms, who directed PRNSA’s field institute between 2012 and 2015, recalled his frustrations with his workplace. He said that if sensitive issues arose—such as problems with an executive director—“there was not a dedicated person or a liaison with whom the staff could talk to without fear of retaliation.” 

He said “hostile” was the best word to describe the workplace, where “you did not know if your job was safe.”

“This is a scrappy organization,” he said. “We worked hard, long hours and we worked together. But the atmosphere of the workplace completely changed when [Ms. Jaffe] was hired.”

Mr. Porrata and Ms. Gray claimed that two employees of PRNSA had resigned since the publication of an article about Mr. Currens came out two weeks ago. Ms. Jaffe declined to comment on the claim, but said 16 people had left and four others had been hired in August, “a busy month at PRNSA” when summer camp and internships end. 

In their letter, Mr. Porrata and Ms. Gray said an investigation by the park service will help “protect whistleblowers from further threats and intimidation while non-partisan investigators ferret out the truth.”